I’ve met many people who came into cycling during their middle years: 30′s, 40′s, 50′s, 60′s. All these riders say the same thing. Riding your bike as an adult is like having a second childhood. For me, it’s been a second chance, a chance at being an “athlete,” something that was inconceivable when I was younger.
The phys-ed teacher I had in junior high and high school was a jerk. Back in those days I was smaller and weaker than even the girls in my class. The coach would look at me with contempt when I couldn’t run intervals, couldn’t jump, could hardly do a push up. Instead of encouraging me, he did the opposite, and turned me off from athletics. I look back at the psychological damage people like him have done to kids like me … what a waste.
Even though I had a bike in those days (an old Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat) and loved riding, it never dawned on me that I could be a good bike rider. But in the back of my mind I had dreams of going on cross-country bike rides, of climbing mountains — things I didn’t think I’d actually ever do.
One of my teachers in high school often let me borrow her 10 speed bike. Even though the frame was too big for me — I could barely reach the pedals or the brake levers on the handlebars — riding that bike was sheer pleasure. I used to ride to the edge of town and cruise down an old section of highway that was no longer in official use. I remember being fascinated by how the gears enabled me to quickly get up to speed, and I remember the thrill of riding fast in the largest gear. I was amazed how far and how fast a person could go under their own power.
From time to time I’d see riders on 10 speed touring bikes passing through our small town in Nebraska, on their way to exotic places like “Boulder, Colorado.” And once in Fort Collins, Colorado, I saw cyclists riding up Big Thompson canyon to the heights of Estes Park, near Rocky Mountain National Park. Wow, wouldn’t it be something to do that?
I figured I was too weak and slow to ever do such a thing. That’s what my coach taught me.
It wasn’t until my last year of under-graduate school that I bought a 10 speed, a gold/orange Schwinn Le Tour III. It was a beautiful bike, and I paid a whopping $150 for it, an unimaginable sum for a bike to me at the time. It turned out I didn’t ride my new bike much. I discovered, not unsurprisingly, that I was slower than any of my peers, which I suppose discouraged me from taking riding more seriously. I mostly used my new bike to commute to school, and for an occasional ride to the park.
When I moved to Phoenix after graduating from college in 1980, I barely rode at all. The streets of Phoenix at that time were not conducive to cycling. Fortunately, a canal passed near my house, and that canal had a bike path I could ride all the way to Squaw Peak (now known as Piestawa Peak.) I would sometimes ride to the park, lock my bike to a post, and hike to the top. I would then have to ride back home. That was no small feat for me. But still, it didn’t dawn on me that this was some sort of “athletic” endeavor. That was not part of my world view.
I obtained a mountain bike in 1989, and after moving to Colorado in 1990, I rode it occasionally, and eventually got to where I could ride a few of the mountain passes nearby, even if it was at 4 mph. Didn’t matter. Those rides were some of the best experiences I ever had. My spirit belonged in the mountains and on the bike.
But even then, it never dawned on me that I should ride all the time — that I too could become a decent cyclist. My affinity for bike riding was being kept under wraps, perhaps by the memories of the look of contempt in my coach’s eye, all those years ago.
But one day I had a dream — a dream where I was running up the mountains with other people. And I was first to the top! I was faster than my peers! I’ll never forget that dream. I realized years later that this dream, though prophetic, had one aspect wrong — it wasn’t running where I would find my athletic self, it was cycling.
It wasn’t until 1999, when I saw a stage of the Tour de France on TV, that I became really interested in cycling. It was the first time I had ever watched bike racing on TV. I was strangely drawn to the races, especially the mountain stages. But why? I wasn’t a racer. I could never do that. I was weak and slow, remember? But I realized I had long neglected a calling inside me.
Even though I still had my old mountain bike, it wasn’t until 5 yrs later (2004) that I actually got back on and started riding — mostly on the road, though. I had moved back to Phoenix, and by then, the streets of the valley, especially in the Scottsdale and Tempe areas, were much better for cycling, with miles and miles of bike lanes. The more I rode the more I realized that even though I was getting older, I could have a second chance, a second childhood — one of being an “athlete.” I could stay with other riders, and even surpass them from time to time.
I wondered why I hadn’t done this a long time ago. All those years wasted, when I could have been cycling.
Today, my motivation in cycling (besides the sheer pleasure of it) is about finding myself, exploring how far and how fast I can go. For me, it’s about mind over matter — about finding the limits of my own potential. What it has never been, nor likely ever will be, is about beating other people.